Tuesday, June 16, 2009

American Cowboys

  • Over time, the cowboys of the American West developed a personal culture of their own, a blend of frontier and Victorian values that even retained vestiges of chivalry. Such hazardous work in isolated conditions also bred a tradition of self dependence and individualism, with great value put on personal honesty.

    The cowboy, the quintessential symbol of the American Old West, circa 1887.

  • The traditions of the working cowboy were further etched into the minds of the general public with the development of Wild West Shows in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which showcased and romanticized the life of both cowboys and Native Americans.

    William Surrey Hart, American silent film actor. Hart went on to become one of the first great stars of the motion picture western. (Photo from Greenbriar Picture Shows)

  • Beginning in the 1920s and continuing to the present day, Western movies popularized the cowboy lifestyle but also formed persistent stereotypes, both positive and negative. In some cases, the cowboy and the violent gunslinger are often associated with one another.

    Ride Lonesome (1959) Starring Randolf Scott, Karen Steele and Pernell Roberts. (Photo from Greenbriar Picture Shows)

  • On the other hand, some actors who portrayed cowboys promoted positive values, such as the "cowboy code" of Gene Autry, that encouraged honorable behavior, respect and patriotism.

    The Lone Ranger starring Clayton Moore. 1950's General Mills adverisement. (From Newhousedesign on Flickr)

  • Likewise, cowboys in movies were often shown fighting with American Indians. However, the reality was that,while cowboys were armed against both predators and human thieves, and often used their guns to run off people of any race who attempted to steal, or rustle cattle, nearly all actual armed conflicts occurred between Indian people and cavalry units of the U.S. Army.

    William Boyd aka Hopalong Cassidy. 1950's Post Grape-Nuts advertisement. (From Newhousedesign on Flickr)

    Keith said...

    Great photos and writeup. I've been getting more and more into learning about cowboys, plus reading western novels and watching westerns.

    Debbie V. said...

    I wonder if cowboys will ever make a comeback? My favorite was Roy Rogers, although I pretty much liked EVERY television show that featured cowboys or western themes. So did my dad.
    I hate that our culture has become too "sophisticated" to enjoy this kind of entertainment.
    Along with others....

    Major Pepperidge said...

    Remember when they took away Clayton Moore's mask, and he had to resort to those oversized sunglasses? So dumb, he WAS the Lone Ranger as far as I'm concerned.

    I know I have a Lone Ranger atomic bomb ring somewhere!

    Cory Gross said...

    One of the problems with Westerns is that they've been "done"... There doesn't seem to be a wide public sense of them having anything more to say. It's only oddball ones with a high profile that get anywhere, whether famous like Unforgiven and Brokeback Mountain or infamous like Wild Wild West and Maverick. That promised revival never quite happens. Personally, one of the films I'm looking forward to in the next couple years is one of those "weird west" stories, Jonah Hex, in which Josh Brolin takes his six-shooters to zombie hordes.

    I would imagine that another one of the problems is that in North America today, more of the population is urban than rural and without any recent rural roots. Furthermore, an increasing number of those people are immigrants for whom the myth of the American west (and the different but still valid Canadian version) has no cultural or historical meaning. Cowboys are no longer part of a shared heritage, but a figure of specialized interest along with samurai, knights and mongols.

    Unfortunately, the age of the singing cowboy really is over. Both that type of film and that type of music are historical artifacts. I didn't even learn that there really was a distinction between Country and Western music until recently, but now that I know, the difference is easy to pick out. However, Country music has far and away eclipsed Western music, and though the Sons of the Pioneers are still plugging along, we'll probably never see the likes of Roy Rogers and Bob Nolan again.

    Viewliner Ltd. said...

    Keith: Way to go man. Keep those Westerns alive.

    Debbie: I agree with you. I grew up with all the TV cowboys of the 50's and 60's and the cool thing is some are still running on cable on a weekly basis. Cheyenne and the Rifleman and Have Gun Will Travel are my favorites.

    Major: I totally remember them taking away The Lone Ranger's mask. All because of the Lone Ranger Motion Picture (which was a total bust of a movie). What can I say, other than it was all about the money.

    Cory: I agree with you completely and I could not have said it better, no seriously I couldn't have :-) Thanks for the great insight. Very much appreciated, Richard.

    Cory Gross said...

    No, thank you. All this talk is making me want to borrow that 5-disk set of Roy Rogers films I bought for my dad for Christmas ^_~

    The Blue Parrot said...

    My great grandfather spent time as a vaquero on ranches in northern Nevada from about (at the age of 12, his father sent him out to earn his own living) 1893 to 1900. Part of the job involved rounding up wild mustangs for sale to buyers from back east.

    It was a hard, tedious life. Romantic it wasn't.

    Seven days a week on the back of a horse. Same clothes every day, cold or hot, rain (snow) or shine. When the opportunity came to move on to railroading, he took it as fast as he could and never rode a horse ever again.